Saints’ curate’s egg of a season when they visit Headingley to take on Leeds Rhinos in a BetFred Super League Round 20 showdown on Thursday night (June 29, kick-off 8.00pm).
Justin Holbrook’s side continue to cling on to hopes of a top four place almost despite themselves. Last week’s absurd come-from-behind win over Salford Red Devils kept Saints in sixth place, five points behind the fourth-placed Rhinos with 11 games still to play before the end of the Super 8s. Another playoff appearance might be a forlorn hope but somehow the dream refuses to die.
If Saints are to get there they will need to dramatically improve their away form and that starts right here in this one. Holbrook’s side have won just one away league game so far in 2017 when they edged out Catalans Dragons in March, while their only other league win away from the stadium formerly known as Langtree Park came in the inexplicable 45-0 demolition of Hull FC at Newcastle’s Magic Weekend in May. A continuation of that trend would have serious implications at this late stage of the season.
Not helping is the one match ban handed out to Mark Percival this week. The England centre vented his frustration following Niall Evalds’ seemingly game-sealing try for the Red Devils last weekend by hoofing the ball aimlessly away. Unfortunately for Percival the pummelled ball managed to fly straight at referee Scott Mikalauskas. Notwithstanding any doubts about his intentions or his kicking skills the RFL have taken a dim view of Percival’s petulance and handed him a fine and an invitation to watch this one from the stands or in front of the telly.
With one starting centre out another is in line for a return as Ryan Morgan is restored to the 19-man selection after missing the Salford miracle through injury. He replaces Jake Spedding in the only change to the 19 (Percival is named as the selection was made prior to the announcement of his ban) and should slot in to Percival’s role to allow Tommy Makinson to continue to cover at centre on the other side. That will allow Adam Swift to retain his place on the wing with Ryan Grace completing the three-quarters. Ben Barba’s appeal against his 12-match ban for cocaine use is due to be heard today (Wednesday) so for the moment expect Jonny Lomax to start at fullback with Theo Fages continuing his halfback partnership with last week’s drop-goal hero Matty Smith.
It is very much as you were in the forwards, with Alex Walsmley starting alongside Kyle Amor or Luke Douglas at prop either side of the indefatigable James Roby at hooker. Zeb Taia continues to frustrate and inspire in equal measure at the left second row position opposite skipper Jon Wilkin, while Morgan Knowles, Luke Thompson and last week’s assistant hero Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook fighting it out to start at loose forward. Two of those three will make the bench with Holbrook left to choose between either Amor or Douglas, Tommy Lee and Dominique Peyroux for the remaining two slots in the 17.
Leeds coach Brian McDermott has a few more selection problems. Danny McGuire has been handed a one-match ban after he offered a referee the benefit of his wisdom during his side’s loss to Castleford last weekend, while Rob Burrow misses out again in what looks set to be the final season of his glorious Super League career. That will place extra responsibility on Jordan Lilley alongside Joel Moon in the halves for the Headingley outfit. Yet it is in the forwards where the Rhinos are most affected with Brett Delaney and Brett Ferress missing from their pack. Adam Cuthbertson, Matt Parcell, Stevie Ward and Carl Ablett will again be key for the Rhinos in the trenches.
Defeat in this one is almost unthinkable if we are genuinely clinging to that top four dream. It would leave Saints seven points adrift of their hosts and with Hull FC next up it could all be over inside 10 days. That miserable away record prevents me from predicting a Saints win with any confidence but with so much on the line and a couple of key Rhinos having to sit this one out Saints might just have an opportunity to keep their half-baked charge on track.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 28. Regan Grace, 36. Zeb Taia.
- Ashton Golding, 2. Tom Briscoe, 3. Kallum Watkins, 4. Joel Moon, 5. Ryan Hall, 8. Keith Galloway, 9. Matt Parcell, 10. Adam Cuthbertson, 11. Jamie Jones-Buchanan, 12. Carl Ablett, 13. Stevie Ward, 14. Liam Sutcliffe, 16. Brad Singleton, 17. Mitch Garbutt, 20. Anthony Mullally, 23. Jack Ormondroyd, 24. Jordan Baldwinson, 25. Jordan Lilley, 31. Jack Walker
Referee: James Child